Frida Kahlo retrospective in Berlin—Part 1: The “Kahlo myth” and the reality

By Jesse Olsen and Bernd Reinhardt
10 September 2010

The largest Frida Kahlo retrospective ever presented in Germany recently closed in Berlin. The long lines of people standing outside the Martin-Gropius-Bau testified to the great popularity of the Mexican artist (1907-1954). Attendance had never before been so high for the exhibition of a single artist. The recent film Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002) has also no doubt contributed to the interest. The film depicts a fascinating woman who was full of life despite severe physical suffering and who radiated an enormous force, reflected in her work.

The exhibition provided a sense of the wide range of her work. It included approximately 150 paintings, beginning with her first attempts at painting around 1925 and continuing until her last, Self-portrait in a Sunflower, which she painted shortly before her death in 1954. This small-format picture, which was earlier thought to have been destroyed, was exhibited alongside previously unknown abstract drawings, shown for the first time in Europe. Together with other drawings, often playful or precisely conceived sketches for future paintings, humorous cartoons and early portraits of friends and acquaintances, they form a contrast to famous paintings such as The Broken Column (1944), Henry Ford Hospital (1932), or the famous self-portraits that are inextricably linked with the Kahlo myth.

The case of this Mexican artist is a prominent example of what happens when individual aspects of a body of work are placed in the foreground and are commercially marketed or exploited. The complexity of Kahlo’s work has not only been overshadowed by many anecdotes and embellishments, but downright distorted. Reviewers and critics tend to stress the “female aesthetic” in her work and an apparent narcissism, rooted in her biography and eccentric disposition.

According to the exhibition catalogue’s introduction, the recent show aspired to “bring light into the history of Frida’s reception” and also go beyond popular “biographical and voyeuristic aspects.” In this regard, however, the Berlin exhibition failed to counter a number of the misconceptions about Kahlo—despite the fact that the exhibition organisers had obviously gone to great lengths to assemble examples of her art from all over the world.

A stark contrast was noticeable between the views of art historian Helga Prignitz-Poda, expressed in the exhibition catalogue, and the guiding concept of the show, which largely ignored the complexity of the multifaceted display of works from a historically important period of Kahlo’s life. A possible clue as to the reasons for this contrast is indicated in the catalogue’s foreword, which states: “Frida Kahlo is a Mexican national treasure, and it took ... also great diplomatic efforts to realise this project”.

The cult around this so-called “icon of pain” can primarily be explained by her turbulent relationship with the muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957), the physical pain she experienced following her devastating bus accident as an 18-year-old, her apparently exotic character, her bisexuality and “feminist art”. The exhibition audience, unfortunately, was presented with a sentimental narrative about Frida’s emotional life, which did not go beyond the trite image of Kahlo incarnated by actress Salma Hayek in Taymor’s Frida. The focus in dealing with Kahlo’s imagery was to convey her artistic work as a striking analogy to her dramatic life. If art history and social questions were mentioned at all, they were reduced to fodder for Kahlo’s self-reflection and individual psychological interpretation.

The roles in which Kahlo is presented in her self portraits were again evaluated as mere idiosyncrasies of the artist: martyr, woman of pain, goddess, lover, Mexican fighter, loner, self-promoter, etc., and contributed to a further iconization of Frida Kahlo. In keeping with this approach, necklaces, plaster of Paris jacket and folk clothes were displayed like holy relics in glass cases.

In fact, her smaller works of art contain a variety of symbols, allegories, various mythologies, and open or encoded appropriations from various world cultures. Because the spectator was not enlightened about these, ultimately the popular notion of Frida Kahlo prevailed: she matured from a young girl into the artist, shaped by marital problems, physical trauma, psychological crises and her inability to have children.

Of course, all of these factors played a role in her life, and many visitors certainly admired the fact that she was able, out of often tragic, deeply human situations, to develop the power to paint and produced images that strike home with many people. However, suffering is not a mandatory requirement for the creation of art. What is needed is a general, creative dissatisfaction with the state of the world and the desire to explore the sources of this dissatisfaction.

Frida did this in an entirely unsentimental manner. After her tragic bus accident in September 1925, which caused her indescribable pain and confined her to her bed, she found her way to painting. That she had actually wanted to study medicine is evidenced by the anatomical knowledge she displayed in her subsequent imagery.

Initially, she created self-portraits and portraits of her friends and some family members. Apart from its practical results, allowing her to earn a living and relieving her family of the burden of enormous medical bills, painting for Kahlo became a way of giving meaning to her life, as part of the basic struggle for existence and self-discovery. In her efforts she was able to rely on the support of her parents. Already striking in her first pictures is a sense of detail, an eye which accurately perceives the environment. This is a skill that might be traced back in part to her German father, a photographer and avid amateur painter who also took architectural photos for the government.

Social and artistic upheavals

Frida Kahlo’s life is closely linked with a social event that was so important to her and her generation that she shifted her year of birth from 1907 to 1910—the eruption of the Mexican revolution, the birth of modern Mexico.

The civil war dragged on for some 10 years. Because her parents’ house lay within the combat zone, Frida Kahlo was acquainted as a small child with the brutality and existential danger of war. Ultimately, most of the revolution’s popular objectives were not achieved—one ruling general replaced another. Under these conditions, the Russian Revolution of 1917 exerted a strong attraction for critical intellectuals and artists such as Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. They saw in the Russian Revolution the path by which to complete the Mexican uprising and became early members of the Communist Party of Mexico (PCM), founded in 1919.

Russian and Mexican artists and theorists discussed the relationship between avant-garde art and revolutionary politics, and discovered their own quite unique forms of expression. It was the epoch of modernism, in which the twin poles of “Art and Revolution” became the driving force for many artists, both in the Soviet Union and cities such as Berlin and Paris. Rivera, who openly supported the Russian Revolution, played a leading role. Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein responded to Rivera’s visits to the USSR (among other things, he taught in Moscow in 1927-28) by visiting him in Mexico.

At the beginning of the 1920s, as the 15-year-old Frida was preparing for her future studies by visiting the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (she was one of the first girls to be admitted to the school), the Mexican government was conducting a campaign against poverty and widespread illiteracy. Many intellectuals were engaged in supporting social progress and turned to oppressed layers of society who had remained ignored and unheeded. This tendency found artistic expression in “muralism”, a form that was able to show, using monumental murals, the history of Mexico, its new values and revolutionary ideals—and not just to the illiterate. The Ministry of Education was responsible for legendary commissions for various wall paintings from “los tres grandes” (the three great) Mexican muralists: Rivera, Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco.

The revival of certain traditional and folk art forms, the rediscovery of native Mexican and pre-colonial art and culture expressed an aesthetic “turn to the people” by intellectuals and artists. This trend was also promoted by the government for other reasons. A special Mexican self-confidence directed against the old European colonial powers and its neighbouring superpower, the United States, was in keeping with the spirit of the new social elite. Nationalism was also a means of pouring ideological cement into the great social divisions in Mexican society, which persisted and deepened following the limited reforms introduced by the revolution.

The students of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, who mainly came from better-off families, grew up in this contradictory, hothouse atmosphere. Above all, they were filled with the idea of a better Mexico. Frida’s school clique, the cachuchas (Spanish for caps), appears to have been marked by its singular lack of respect for the school authorities. The girls discussed the reformist ideas of the Minister of Education José Vasconcelos Calderón, international literature, the philosophy of Karl Marx, as well as the conservative ideas of Spengler. Some of Frida’s friends later took up senior positions in the new society.

The establishment of a Mexican national culture, based on the old, previously frowned-upon pre-colonial culture of the indigenous peoples, was associated in part with attacks on the academic painting and institutions of the existing “Fine Arts”, and the latter’s aesthetics, which were mainly taught by professors from France, Germany and Italy. Frida discovered the traditional ex-voto art, simple stories mostly painted on small metal plates as offerings of thanks for salvation, healing, etc., left by believers in churches. She utilised the Christian themes and stories favoured by the ordinary population, although she was an opponent of Catholicism, that centuries-old system for the suppression of the people.

The first seven years of her portraits (1925-1932) follow European examples, especially Renaissance Florentine portraiture. She gained her knowledge of this school from her father’s remarkable library and the Biblioteca Ibero-Americana. Her first Self-portrait in velvet dress and the Portrait of Kahlo Adriana (both painted in 1926) show the clear influence of Botticelli or Bronzino. The inescapable gaze of the elegantly dressed individual portrayed before a dark, unreal background and other visual features correspond to Florentine sensibilities.

Frida Kahlo, Portrait of Marucha Lavin, 1942. Copyright by“Olga’s Gallery” www.abcgallery.com

Portraits, usually women, were enhanced through allusions and symbols that characterize the person portrayed. Revealing, humorous means were used to unmask the person depicted on a second glance, and also to shift the meaning of the seemingly unambiguous depiction. The butterflies surrounding the woman portrayed in the 1942 portrait Marucha Lavín are actually nocturnal moths, in other words, pests—a reference to a well-known Mexican pun: “La Polilla come tela, la mujer te la come”. (“The moth eats the material, but the woman, you!”)

Frida Kahlo was quite familiar with the realities of social life. It is completely misleading to present her as someone merely obsessed with her own feelings, thoughts and passions.

To be continued